Thursday, December 24, 2015

Advent: A Time for Faithfulness

Once a year -- during our busiest season -- my job requires me to work on Sunday. This past Sunday was the day. When my supervisor came to me last week and mentioned it, those who overheard immediately began to interject. "What about church?! You can't miss church." "You know Judi doesn't work on Sunday! She's religious!" I catch a bit of flack for being "the Bible-banger" at work. Most of it is in good fun, and I don't mind at all. But when the objections started the other day, I explained, "If I was religious, I would have a problem working on Sunday; but I'm not." Sadly, a bustling UPS office at Christmas affords me no opportunity to explain my statement; on "quiet" days, we get about a thirty second interval between phone calls. But my statement was made; the explanation would have to wait until another time.

The truth is, the shift for which I was scheduled started well before our worship service starts; I knew I'd have enough time to get there and, trust me, I would not have missed church for work. Secondly, had I refused "for religious reasons," I would have been given some other horrible shift to work that would have taken me from anything else I'd rather be doing. Third, I am not religious. My relationship with Jesus doesn't require me to keep rules like "Stand up when the congregation is standing;" "Give up something for Lent;" "Do no work on Sunday." God has showered me with unspeakable grace; He has transformed my heart, and out of that flows a desire to honor Him, serve Him and remain holy. Religion turns that design completely around; religion observes rules and rites in an effort to be holy and show yourself worthy to God. Religion is futile.

In Luke 2:21-24, Luke records Joseph and Mary's keeping of Jewish law: the circumcision of Jesus, recognition of Mary's time of purification, and the presentation at the temple of their firstborn son. Circumcision and purification were rites required of God's people in Mosaic Law. Setting apart of the firstborn (a ceremony known today as Pidyon Ha'ben) was also required in the Old Testament. Joseph and Mary held in their arms the Son of the Living God, a Redeemer sent to earth to buy each one of us back from sin and death at the cost of His life. The Child they held was the ultimate Sacrifice, and eradicated the need for us to sacrifice. He was Grace incarnate, and bestowed upon all of us the privilege of adoption into God's family without the rules and observations the people of Israel had been accustomed to upholding. Because of Jesus we are no longer bound by religion. Maybe there's a certain irony in these two people chosen by God for such an honor, being obligated to observe God's Law because the baby they held had not yet died. Maybe it's just faith.

The problem with religion isn't the "stuff": rules, restrictions, memorizations, ceremonies. The problem with religion is observance without attitude. I don't believe Joseph and Mary obeyed God's Law because they feared divine retribution; they didn't follow the rules because "good people" do that sort of thing. Would God have chosen a couple like that? I believe God chose them because they loved Him. They were willing, and humble, and faithful. Their hearts were as consecrated to God as they wished their son to be. (Now that is ironic.) Though they did not see the whole picture, it is clear Joseph and Mary knew they held in their arms a King, the Savior of the people of Israel. Were they tempted to ignore the rules that applied to others, the "common people"? Did they ever have the urge to forego a sacrifice they probably could not afford, on the grounds they would one day surrender their son to the whole of Israel? Maybe, but nevertheless, they remained faithful.

This Advent may come at a time when your income is failing -- or may already have failed -- or your family is fighting, or your health is not so good, or you've found yourself so sad and alone you can't stand the thought of one more carol. All those traditions that draw us into feeling like we just never measure up? All those obligations, religious or otherwise? Leave them at God's throne. Make this Advent a time to surrender in prayer before the King of Kings, let His Word speak to you, seek only His will for your life, and be faithful to it.

Merry Christmas!

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